5 Tips for More Engaging Educational Games

Tips for Designing Better Educational Games

What does it take to make an engaging educational game–one that kids want to take outside the classroom and show their family and friends?

Creating an entertaining educational experience, while cramming the required lessons, usually results in deep compromises on either end. Too much formal curriculum and you’ve moved into potentially boring “interactive textbook” territory. Too much action with pinches of learning sprinkled on top it may not have an impact as a learning tool. There’s a balance somewhere in between. While we can’t explicitly describe what works for every topic, age group, and game type, we can explore several pointers we have learned over our 15 years of experience designing successful e-learning games and applications.

We won’t get far in this first list. Learning games can be complex beasts, involving thoughtful design on and under the hood, but we’ll start with these and keep the series on the topic running.

1: Get Them to Engage the Curriculum with Fun Interactions

Take things further than just button clicks. Even just allowing players to drag their answers into a receptacle can help kids better connect to what they are learning and may help them visualize solutions better. Help them visualize those interactions in parallel a fun activity in the physical world. In a game about the environment, instead requiring players to label the types of recyclables, turn it into a fun basketball game and let them toss them into the appropriate bins for points. They make the same decisions, but do it in a more fun, game-like way, and it even mimics how we do things in the real world (well, at least how I do it).

The interactions you design should get kids to actively engage with the curriculum, not just review or read it. For example, you are designing a game to help teach grammar. The player’s current task for this level is to identify the subject of the sentence: “The pig flew off into outer space.”  Why not just ask them to tap the subject and give him/her a few points for getting it right? You could… but is that memorable? Is that something they will want to repeat over and over again?

Here’s a better idea: Get them to interact with the content to create a memorable experience. Let them drag the subject word “Pig” into space—Poof—it becomes a pig wearing astronaut helmet and radios “Oink, Houston, come in! Oink!” Now they have a humorous visual to help them retain that knowledge, and recall it when they need to apply it. Even better, they feel like they helped craft this hilarious scenario. Kids learn best when they are actively learning, which can be anything from manually manipulating puzzles to riding a bike (or Smart Cycle). If you shape your game to contain more playful interactions, a player used to playing games will feel right at home. 

Start your game design model first by looking at the types of games kids love to play. After that you can creatively mix in the desired curriculum, being conscious of when it starts to encroach on the fun. Take a look at DragonBox Algebra, a fantastic app that wraps algebraic equations in a magical card-game. Players tap and drag cards with symbols and weird creatures in an effort to isolate the DragonBox to one side (essentially solving for X). One wouldn’t even realize it’s a math game if it didn’t reveal the cards as mathematical terms at the end of the level, showing that the player has been solving equations the whole time. I wish I had this when I was in 9th grade!

2: Player Representation and Decoration

Whether it is a simple icon or an animated avatar, giving the player something to represent their person as they play, dramatically increase their interest in the content and stake in completion. Adding on a layer of customization to that can give them something that is uniquely and entirely their own, that they can build upon as they play and learn, and help tie their role as a player to the world and problems the game puts forth. A game narrative that puts the player at the center of attention is really a great alternative to giving them a boring schoolwork assignment. It’s up to them to save the prince or princess, the kingdom, the world…with science! It is crucial that whenever a problem arises, the player–our hero, is encouraged to be the leader and is treated as if they are not only capable of solving the game’s challenges, they are awesome because they do!

Taking it a step further, avatars that offer some customizability through progression unlock are a fantastic way of locking players in to finish tasks. It gives them something to strive for and allows them to carry their progression with them as continue on. It’s also a great way to show off progress and achievements to classmates, friends, and family. 

In the Workinman-developed adventure game, Money Matters: $ky, players manage wealth over the course of their game life. They can save or spend, invest or live lavishly. The game world sets up new players with their own avatar and starter home (more like shack), as they head out to seek an education, career, a house with more than three walls, and of course all the problems that come with them. At any time they can buy upgrades for their home, from reasonable purchases to extravagant ones. They direct their life as they see fit and see the impacts of those decisions on their finances in a matter of minutes. We found that the avatar/home customization component was the driving force of risk for players, temping them to spend income rapidly at first. As they saw the impacts of decisions play out, they quickly shifted to delay gratification, saving up and reaping the benefits of investments and savings. When retirement came along, they full-filled their dreams with awesome goodies – and justifiably so! Quite a life-lesson to learn in 30 minutes of play!

3: Reward Feedback Loop

Giving your players more motivation to keep playing and solving problem, than just a typical score or grade. Just by designing a proper reward system, it can help promote player retention and incentivize mastery. A reward system in the form of collectable badges, new feature unlocks, or avatar “bling,” can not only keep a child’s interest for hours on end, but can also help incentivize mastery of the content. 

The goal with a reward system is to create a feedback loop that keeps players focused on the next goal and the next reward, even if said reward is simply cosmetic. More complex feedback loops allow those rewards to be equipped (for either cosmetics for utility) so they carry it as they continue to play, as something to show off and be proud of.  Collection mechanics give players a greater stake in the their progression, often encouraging completeness and better performance. Players tend to want to finish what they started and showing them a hint of what’s left for them to win sets up that drive for them to keep striving to earn it.

The ideal feedback loop for an education title is one that uses the curriculum itself as a reward in the loop. Imagine a vocabulary/spelling Escape Room game. The goal is to solve a series of puzzles, using objects around the room, to unlock the door and escape. In order to use an item, players need need to identify and spell it. As players learn the first layer of words from opening Cabinet, Drawer, or Refrigerator, it then reveals new words as their contents: ScissorsKnifeDecanter, and more. Over time, players are using words previously learned to navigate the room, solve more complex puzzles, and use new objects. It opens up new freedoms as they progress, reinforces past curriculum, and develops self-confidence in what they are learning.

4: Concise and Gratifying Feedback

Clicky buttons, awesome explosions, flourishing sparkles, and popping pickups are all things we expect from an entertaining game. When it comes to e-learning, we need to approach these types of effects with little more care.

Learning games need to respond to player inputs with effects and messaging that is clear and concise. Don’t leave the player confused and asking “Was that right or wrong?”  Positive feedback should be obviously so; indicating the choice was definitely correct. Use text or voice over with audio/visual effects just to be sure.  There’s nothing wrong with having “Right” or “Correct” show up in a spell-casting fantasy game. Don’t leave it up to a green sparkle smoke effect to be interpreted the right way (to some people, green looks like poison). Double-up by showing points fly out of the answer and tick up their score, and maybe their character or avatar can have a celebratory animation to go along with it as well. Make positive look positive.

When it comes to wrong answers, you still want to be clear about it, but avoid being too harsh. There’s nothing worse than learning a new concept and being punished and annoyed when you struggle with it. It’s best to think of negative feedback in terms of “OOPS…” rather than “WONG!”

Which brings us into the concept of stepping negative feedback. When players just aren’t getting it you want to assist them in discovery of the solution, rather than repeating “try again.”  Set up a feedback structure that gradually offers hints to get them to realize the right answer, and you are teaching, not just grading. Here’s a simple example of a stepping negative feedback structure:

  • Step 1 (First Miss): Small, but clear audio/visual effect, and voice over/text that says “That’s not it. Try again.”
  • Step 2 (Repeated misses) : Small, but clear audio/visual effect, and voice over/text that says “That’s not it. Could it be something else?”
  • Step 3 (Further repeated misses) : Clear audio/visual effect, and provide a hint. The hint can be either a clue using curriculum to point them in the right direction, or it can be a subtle glow, arrow, or flash on the correct answer.
  • Step 4 (Final miss) : Clear audio/visual effect, and show them how to do it right. Ideally you don’t want to just let them pass, but show them how drag, spell, click, whatever was required. After all, they may just be confused by the mechanic or situation. The goal is to let them proceed and continue playing, while turn this particular failure in to a learning opportunity.

Allowing players to advance after a few tries isn’t handholding if they learn from it.  As educators, we can learn from it too. Games can track the number of misses and the player’s adaptability to the feedback and gauge learning their performance. The goal here is to keep players playing and enjoying the game. Facilitate their learning and make feedback, both positive and negative more enjoyable and helpful. 

In the Mind Snacks series of learning games, they use simple color changes and pleasing sound effects to provide quick and recognizable feedback. Negative feedback is accompanied by a subtle, but clearly negative audio tone and then pauses the game to review the correct response, often accompanied with reinforcing information such as a definition or pronunciation using voice over.

5: More Interactive Tutorialization

First impressions count, and when a student first launches your game, you want them to be engaged and get playing as soon as possible. Not only do you want to get them up to speed on the rules and controls, but you also have to keep their interest or you will begin to lose them.

Blocks of text are mood-killers. There’s nothing more annoying than starting up a new game, ready to have some fun, and being confronted by non-skippable walls of monotonous text outlining every detail. Page after page (with maybe a few icons, if you are lucky), and opportunity to try out what was just mentioned. Instead, keep it light, and to the point, and if you have a lot to cover, cut it up and spread it out over several levels. Give them some freedom to move around and try out the last instruction a few times before moving on to the next.

Use visuals instead of text. Instead of a paragraph explanation (or rambling voice over), show them instead. Use an arrow or a highlight to point them to their next interaction. Then highlight or animate the next button to press. Do you need a lengthy explanation of what objects and buttons do in the game? That’s what help systems and instructor’s guides are for. Your role as a creator is to design those interactions so they read clearly. Players should get a feel for the purpose of things based on how they behave and especially react. If you really need to spend a lot of time explaining how a simple concept works, maybe rethink the design until it explains itself.

Make your tutorial contextual. If need to tutorialize a series of mechanics, avoid doing it all at once. Don’t try to tell a player about walking, then running, then jumping, then crouching, then attacking… and whatever else they can do in a rapid fire string of instructions. Dish it out in stages, right at the point they are required to use it (good tutorial level design comes into play here). It also helps to design your onboarding stage more like goal-based sandbox, allowing players to encounter and try out new mechanics when they are comfortable doing so.

Nintendo’s Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker does a fantastic job of contextual tutorialization. Since Nintendo games appeal to seasoned players too, its tutorial was designed to help the leaners without requiring even one additional button press from the experts. A banner along the bottom suggests basic controls as needed, and whenever a specific interaction is required, if the player doesn’t act immediately, A thought bubble appears above Captain Toad, showing what button to press or action to perform. Players get right into the game and start solving puzzles with no interruptions in play, and no nagging screens or dialog.

Workinman Interactive for Engaging Educational Game Design & Development.

That wraps up our first round of tips for educational games. We’ll revisit the topic in the near future, diving a bit deeper into game design, leveling, and accessibility for the classroom.

If you are looking to develop an engaging educational for kids and adults alike, or just need the kinks worked out on an existing title, give us a shout, and we’ll be happy to team up to bring another quality learning game to market.

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